The case for digital age government
When one thinks of digital government, more often than not it conjures up thoughts of the citizens engaging with their government through an app. Perhaps it extends to electronic diplomacy where nations resolve conflict by submitting their negotiating algorithms onto a United Nations sponsored server. For me that is more the digitalisation of government, a more efficient version of what we currently have, and not digital age government.
The various transformation efforts we are witnessing appear to have this limited interpretation of digital age government. This article highlights that a rethink is required.
Goodbye synthetic certainty
In the developed world, we have had circa three hundred years of what might be called ‘synthetic certainty’. Governments have endeavoured to create environments where businesses could invest in factories with some hope that the emerging goods would be valued by the market long enough to justify the investment costs.
This synthetic certainty increased the likelihood that the majority of citizens could live their lives knowing that their security and health was in good hands. At the top end of the social ladder, they could even focus on their careers and devote their limited discretionary cognitive capacity towards whether to buy a holiday home or choose yoga over Pilates. In some societies, those further down the ladder could aspire to climb upwards.
A handful of countries had a sufficient proportion of people living this dream and so they became target destinations for a better life. Such societies offered what appeared to be a worry-free, pleasure-driven existence.
You might say that such governments were in the drugs business, having created a machine that generously dispensed dopamine and serotonin. This was weaved into the economic model in the form of consumerism. ‘Mine is newer/bigger/shinier than yours’, was socially engineered to create an addictive and intoxicating drug.
The democracy delusion
This was also packaged up in a model called democracy. The intention of which was to give every citizen a say in how societal matters were conducted. But this is something of an ideal, because it requires an informed citizen to function. The most effective way to inform a citizen is through the media. And if the media is not citizen-owned then democracy is skewed to meet the needs of a well-heeled minority. It was even felt by some of the more ‘enlightened’ nations that this model should be exported.
In any case, if we look at these aspirational nations, all appeared to be going well, particularly if Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was the measure of success. However, in these countries something is awry.
The rich are becoming richer. The middle class is crumbling, having to work harder to buy things to impress people they don’t really like, often with money they have yet to earn. Their kids aren’t automatically buying into this lifestyle, so the machine is in danger of stalling.
And those ‘blue-collar’ workers who aspired to such an existence are having their dreams dashed by increased automation. On top of this, we have the ‘unemployables’, who in some cases are economically blighted from birth. Some are economically trapped by their social benefits system. But some are sufficiently streetwise to design alternative lifestyles through harnessing black economy opportunities.
Denial and disillusionment
The majority has become sufficiently disillusioned by the current status quo that we are seeing a dismantling of traditional politics. Extremism and experimentation are gaining traction as the people would rather explore unknown alternatives.
Those on the dry side of the lifeboat lament this descent into chaos. This is of course natural. The existing model has served them well. But perhaps through a lack of empathy they do not see that with all things considered, the response of the masses is reasonable. This in turn leads to a more ingrained polarisation of society and eventually the rot sets in. It also suggests, as we will see, a lack of foresight in those trying to preserve the status quo.
The bigger picture
What I believe we are witnessing is the end of synthetic certainty. New technology has played a large part in this. Global connectivity means that anything that happens anywhere will have an impact everywhere. Globalism in respect of supply chains means that a disagreement between say South Korea and Japan can disrupt consumer goods globally.
- Technology advances, including connectivity
- Foreign exchange rates
- Biological forces
- Terrorism – Cyber / physical
- Competing ideologies
- Disasters – Natural and otherwise
- Trade wars
- Demand for natural resources
- Changing demographics
- Demand for human capital
- Anthropocentric effects.
The bottom line is that as governments continue to masquerade as the sole determinant of their citizens’ well-being, they are going to become increasingly distrusted and irrelevant.
Conversely those governments that alert their people to what is happening and provides them with the tools needed to survive in this post-industrial environment are more likely to have their support. This new reality requires both governments and citizens to transform. As you can hopefully see, throwing tech at your government does not constitute building a government for the digital age.
So, what shape does government take in the post-industrial era? Like corporations, governments needed to be built with adaptability in mind. Imagine a ministerial cabinet that reconfigures itself in real-time based on the primary matters of importance in any given moment. Think of it as situational government.
To adapt in real-time, they need to be sufficiently sensitive to what is happening in their environment. This includes being in tune with all citizens and being aware of the dynamics in neighbouring states, as well as those along the critical supply chains. We live in a world where some well-branded corporations are positioning themselves to have more influence over citizen affairs than the elected leaders. Such companies, with their seemingly infinite resources, need to be managed carefully.
As well as having a real-time cabinet, we will need a similarly sensitive and responsive state administration. Real-time responsiveness requires decentralised leadership. Some might call it ubiquitous leadership.
If the administration is genuinely plugged into an informed citizenry, then we have a model resilient enough to deal with the uncertainty and volatility of the digital age.
Political parties usually promote themselves around an ideology or issue. This has become somewhat blurred as political parties are ultimately more interested in power and thus tend to take the best bits from their rivals (in countries where citizens have a choice) in order to appear more attractive. Like governments, ideologies themselves need to be situational (even the North Star moves). An ideology built on say the well-being of the working man is irrelevant in a world where the robots have displaced the factory workers.
The trouble with issue-based politics is that the party is designed for one scenario. Like a plate, it is optimised to endure ‘force’ from one direction only. But we are moving into a world where the pressures can emerge from any angle, and in unrecognisable forms. So, this fragile model has very limited value. Strong on one issue, typically means weak in all others.
We need a hybrid government that can dynamically bring the important issues to the fore without having to keep their manifesto continuously in ‘edit mode’.
There is no simple solution. We need to be mindful of this bigger picture, rather than simply digitalising the existing and increasingly anachronistic model. Authoritarianism is an unpalatable option. But in a world where adaptability is everything, I propose that this model might have more merit than a pseudo-democracy model. Of course, the people would have to decide whether it is more important for the nation to flourish, rather than the individual. I am not advocating dictatorships in any form. But if nations are serious about transformation, they need to think beyond how to automate the route scheduling of their pothole repair workers.
Creating a digital age government is not an exercise constrained to politicians and civil servants. Again, the world is becoming more uncertain, as macroeconomic vectors become more powerful. It would be naïve to think that a rejigging of government will allow the people to proceed as normal. For those of us who have enjoyed the economic models of developed nations, the party is over. No one is immune from what might be considered as our return to the pre-industrial savanna once inhabited by our ancestors. You might say we are heading towards the emergence of a digital savanna, where your skillset is more closely linked to survival, rather than a portfolio of nuanced lifestyle options.
In short, each citizen’s value / economic relevance on this digital age savanna is no longer based on their work experience, schooling or careful choice of career. It is based on our ability to dynamically adapt to a chaotic market with capabilities that cannot be delivered by a robot or an algorithm.
This in effect dissolves the notion of a career and requires primary through to tertiary education to undergo radical transformation.
This may be too much for the middle classes to bear. Their investment in the old model will be hard to relinquish. I would encourage those in this seemingly gilded position to think of themselves as Roman citizens who have been forewarned of the collapse of the empire along with insights into what lies in store post-empire. Like the post-empire dark age, the digital age will be unsettling and will likely upset social hierarchies and citizen expectations. However, it will also be an opportunity to design a more adaptable and equitable society, where perhaps we trade the security of synthetic certainty for the freedom of the ‘no holds barred’ digital savanna.
This is a big topic. I have focused more on the problem than the solution. I believe governments, businesses and citizens are too preoccupied with the symptoms associated with what lies ahead, rather than the causes and possible solutions. Much like tourists on the beach complaining about the disappearance of the sea, whilst ignoring the fact that all the animals are heading for the hills.
I believe there is no question that governments, businesses and people need to transform. The bigger challenge will be to do so in a manner that minimises personal, societal and global disruption.
We all need to reflect on whether we want a government that is optimised for individuals (‘check me out’), society (‘we’ll teach them’) or mankind (‘we are all in the one boat’). And do we want a government optimised for ourselves or subsequent generations?These questions do not make great news content and so our attention is redirected to the symptoms, rather than the problem and the consequences.
Hopefully this post will encourage leaders to embrace the bigger picture. Digital age disruption cannot be controlled. We need an adaptable digital age government going forward to ensure everybody thrives. In fact it would be better to think less about digital and more about disruption.
A wired-up government is not necessarily a government fit for the age of disruption.